Written by: Chris Cleave
Rating: 4 / 5 stars
Summary: As Little Bee ran from her village in flames and men with machetes and hunting dogs racing after her, Sarah was staring at the beach waves and her husband’s eyes and wondering how he alone could be her whole world. As Little Bee remained hidden in the cargo hold of a ship bound for England, going without real food or water for several days, Sarah was no doubt shoveling food into her newborn baby’s mouth. As Little Bee struggled to remain unnoticed and out of trouble in a British refugee detention camp, Sarah began an affair with a man to fill the empty hole her husband’s depression had left behind. And as Little Bee stood on her front doorstep, reaching out to the only person in England she knew after escaping from the detention center, Sarah was preparing to step out to attend her husband’s funeral after his untimely suicide. They collided for the second time, but this was the collision that would alter the rest of their lives.
Disclaimer: This book was given to me to judge for use in the University of Florida’s 2017 Common Reading Program.
“Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.“
Review: I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book in which a writer chose to have all of his narrators (in this case, only two) to be of the opposite gender of himself.
I didn’t even think about it, in all honesty, until one of my friends reading the book pointed it out; and that shows you how effortlessly Cleave adopts the differing mindsets of both a young African refugee and a middle class, recently mothered and widowed English woman while they narrate the story of their intwined relationship. Cleave has developed an intricate story about a refugee named Little Bee who, when escaping from the destruction of her village, comes upon a white English couple honeymooning at the beach. When the soldiers arrive close behind her, they bargain with the white couple for her and her sister’s life; the wife is the only one who makes the necessary sacrifice, and Little Bee, although not her sister, is spared. The soldiers still take her away, however, but she escapes from them and heads to England hidden among cargo on a ship, only to be caught and sent to a refugee detention center. Two years after her initial imprisonment, she is “released” and sets out to find the woman who saved her life: a new widow named Sarah who accepts her into her home. Sarah is the character that shows what we can do for refugees in a time like this, where Syrians and African refugees alike are still fleeing to America to escape the atrocities in their countries. Cleave is able to employ Little Bee as more than a fictional story to read; it also acts as a lightly veiled instruction manual for what we, as (mostly) members of first-world countries, can do for those who need to escape their own homes and make a new one.
Ultimately, for me, there is but a single reason that this book didn’t receive a full five star rating: the ending, which was so flat and meaningless that I’m unsure of why the author thought that was the ending this story deserved. Perhaps I’ve still not fully gotten out of the mindset that believes every story ought to have a happy ending; while not naive, it’s always nice to think that’s true. But even horribly sickening or tragic or depressing or undeserving endings can still be good endings – they can still accentuate the plot, they can still provide the story meaning… and Cleave’s ending for Little Bee’s story failed to do that. There is nothing I hate more than unfinished business, and Little Bee’s fate is just that.
Little Bee’s voice is clear from the first page. I can imagine her actual thoughts as rapid, breathless. Although the rhythm and vocabulary Cleave used in her passages definitely indicate at Little Bee’s physical age, the matters at which she speaks and the intelligence with which she discusses them indicate her philosophical age clearly. When she explains things about her village and the differences between the culture she left behind and the culture she is now attempting to embrace, it is in this sage child’s voice; she is patient and informative, curious and meditative. Despite the fact that her very future is in question, Little Bee’s only concern is that she remains safe. Sarah, on the other hand, is the opposite of Little Bee; her life is unraveling into loose threads around her, none of which she can seem to grasp and re-twine into place. Her husband, whom she was unaware she still fully loved, has committed suicide; her job at a progressive woman’s magazine is quickly heading down the tabloid lane she always wanted to avoid; her four-year-old son refuses to remove his Batman costume; and now the source of her nightmares and her reason for having one less finger than the norm is at her doorstep. Cleave somehow is able to step into her shoes perfectly as well, and allows for the reader to reach into the book to touch him, and Sarah, as he does so. Additionally, she is the one that I, as a reader, felt most connected to. For those of you who have read the book and, like the majority, dislike Sarah: hear me out. She is the perfect image of a realistic humanity. She is selfish and is only halfway invested in her job and her marriage and her affair; she tends to pat herself on the shoulder a bit too often than is warranted; she has all she needs but still wants, wants, wants unneedlessly. She perfectly juxtaposes Little Bee, who highlights all of the innocence that comes with youth and with living in an underexposed country, and that is what makes their relationship all the more incredible and beautiful.
Some of my friends who also read the book discussed the issue of Lawrence, Sarah’s affair that becomes a more prevalent character after his concern of Sarah accepting Little Bee into her home. They argued that his relationship with Sarah made no sense, and that his sudden heavy presence in her life contradicted the relationship they had shared before Little Bee’s arrival. But I argued back – that’s the point. Lawrence, when he arrives, basically threatens Little Bee with deportation; without him, Sarah probably would’ve adopted Little Bee or helped her become a legal immigrant and that would be that. But there had to be some sort of hiccup along the way, and Lawrence was that hiccup. Additionally, the actual matter of his relationship with Sarah is entirely realistic. People always think of affairs as being full of passion and excitement, but sometimes it can develop into the same sense of obligation as a real relationship, and that sense of responsibility can grow into loathing between the two partakers. Sarah relies on Lawrence because she no longer has her husband, and he lets her because she is the only exciting thing in his life, not because he actually enjoys her. I think the realistic manner of their relationship is actually one of the things Cleave does best in the entire book.
Ultimately, this book is incredible. I think that it is a beautiful statement on humanity from two very different viewpoints, and how much potential both characters have and the opportunities they have to fulfill that potential. Cleave is a masterful writer, juggling the two identities with ease while still managing to tell a story full of twists that already happened without the reader’s knowledge, making them all the more unpredictable. Although the ending I feel was very insufficient, especially when compared to the heaviness of the subject matter and the complexity of the writing that takes up much of the earlier and middle pages of the book, I don’t think it entirely negated the story that had been told up to that point. The quality of Cleave’s writing and storytelling still carried more weight, and I look forward to reading more of his work in the future.